Hope returns to Saint John after years of economic stagnation and an exodus to Alberta, SHAWNA RICHER reports. A $7-billion proposal would position the city as an energy hub and help regenerate a lost population
SHAWNA RICHER -
Wednesday, November 1, 2006
SAINT JOHN -- This historic, industrial city on the picturesque Bay of Fundy is the archetypal land of Maritimes hope and dreams.
A thriving shipbuilding hub through the nineties, Saint John, like so many Atlantic Canadian towns and cities, has seen its economy stagnate and its population flee, mostly to booming Alberta. These days, however, the city's biggest employers are travelling west to stage job fairs, and business leaders are waging a public-relations war to try to lure back workers who left home.
A city of 69,961 built by private industry, largely the powerful Irving family whose name is on everything from the country's largest oil refinery and pulp mills to gas stations and building-supply stores, plucky Saint John has never given up the dream of returning to its glory days. Those good times may be around the corner, thanks to a new Irving megaproject and an energetic will to battle Alberta's population poaching.
"It's absolutely a crisis," said Bob Manning, a financial adviser and chair of the Saint John Board of Trade. He is also a former resident of Alberta who now makes the port city home.
"Our employees are being poached and companies are feeling it. It's going to hamper their growth if we don't deal with it today. But the good news is we have both the private and public sector willing to address it."
Irving Oil Ltd.'s proposed $7-billion state-of-the-art refinery would produce more than 300,000 barrels a day and employ 5,000 during construction and more than 1,000 long term. Operation is expected to start some time in 2012. The refinery, along with a forthcoming liquefied natural-gas terminal and Emera pipeline, will position Saint John as an energy hub for the northeastern seaboard.
Irving made the announcement last month, coinciding with a vigorous campaign by the business networking group Enterprise Saint John to get New Brunswickers to move back east.
"It's really a recognition of declining population, aging population, people seeing their kids move away and the movement towards the West," said Kevin Scott, Irving Oil's director of refining growth. "People are saying, 'What's this going to look like in 20 years if we don't do something?' Are all of our families going to be living out there? Are we creating a missing generation?"
New Brunswick took personally a recent insert published in Maritimes newspapers that urged job seekers to move to Alberta.
"This community got quite incensed," said Enterprise Saint John CEO Steve Carson. "We've spent a lot of time and energy over the last few years looking at work force issues in Atlantic Canada and looking at immigration and repatriation strategies for the coming years. We're bombarded every day with talk of our people going to Alberta. This is an urgent problem."
As part of its "Move East" agenda, Enterprise Saint John printed a cheeky response to the publication inviting those in Alberta to come to New Brunswick, poking fun at the West's staggering cost of living.
Mr. Manning grew up north of Calgary in the farming community of Delburne, attended St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia and married a woman from Saint John. He lived in Somerset County, N.J., until shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, when he and Kelly decided to return to the Maritimes.
"Our choice was either Western Canada or Saint John, and we chose Saint John," he said. "Three of our children were born here. As a business community it had been very good to me. We made a quality-of-life decision. We like the Maritimes, being close to the water and the idea of a smaller community."
According to Statistics Canada, New Brunswick saw a net loss of 2,047 people during the first six months of this year. The preferred destination? Alberta. New Liberal Premier Shawn Graham made out-migration a major issue in his campaign, promising to bring New Brunswickers home "by the plane load."
Irving's pulp-and-paper division, JD Irving Ltd., and Moosehead Breweries are two employers that have started recruiting out west, selling the Maritimes quality of life and a chance to come home. They have little choice.
"There are holes in our organization because of retirement and growth and we're doing our best to cast the net," said Moosehead spokesman Joel Levesque, whose own 26-year-old son is working at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology. On a recent visit to Calgary to see his son, they happened into a diner for breakfast and found "a huge table of Saint Johners. That's the story of out west."
Goin' Down the Road, the 1970 Canadian film about two Nova Scotians who seek a better life in Toronto, has long been the story of the Maritimes but has rarely been more of a going concern. To wit, earlier this week, more than 5,000 workers lined up for hours outside a hotel in St. John's, Nfld., for an Alberta job fair.
Business New Brunswick Minister Greg Byrne said Alberta's aggressive recruiting of Maritimers has left the province no choice but to fight back to get them home and keep them from leaving in the first place.
"It's going to take a comprehensive strategy, but there are many things we can do. The most important thing is making sure the jobs are here for people to return to. We have to pay competitive wages, but in cases where we don't, we have to sell our strengths, our quality of life," he said.
Jeff and Kim MacDonald both grew up in New Brunswick and moved to Fort McMurray, Alta., after university in the late nineties because they couldn't find jobs at home. When Ms. MacDonald received an offer from oil-sands company Suncor, Mr. MacDonald followed and easily found a job.
"Within a week I threw out three résumés and had two offers," he said. "In New Brunswick, I'd send out 300 résumés and get one interview."
They wanted to return home in 10 years, but Irving Oil headhunted them and they came back in 2002. With a baby on the way, they couldn't be happier.
"We didn't regret the decision to go but we're happy to be home," Mr. MacDonald, an environmental specialist, said. "For us, it's about being close to family. The salaries are comparable and I'd rather work for a New Brunswick-based company. My parents are close. We missed out on a lot of birthdays and things we should have been home for when we were in Alberta. We want to raise Maritimers. The lifestyle is calmer. And we've got a much bigger lawn and I can see the deer on it in the mornings."
The uber-heated economy in Alberta has taxed the province's infrastructure. Housing prices are astronomical; some new arrivals are forced to live in campgrounds. Conversely, New Brunswick is the only province where housing prices have fallen, but business leaders have recognized the city has catching up to do so far as cultural amenities to make it a more desirable place to live. Enterprise Saint John's True Growth plan aims to change the city's "brand," as Mr. Carson calls it; in other words, more art galleries, better restaurants.
It hasn't been easy. With its reputation as a smokestack town, Saint John has often had trouble getting out of its own way when it comes to its image.
"Compared to where we were 10 years ago we've come a long way already," Mr. Carson said. "Saint John is known as a community that doesn't always have its act together and doesn't know what it wants. But it's a city built on the spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation, an old city with a sense of self. There have been times lately when things haven't looked so good, but I believe it is Saint John's time again. It's up to us to make it real."
At $6.70, New Brunswick has the lowest minimum wage in Canada; at the high end, Nunavut pays $8.50, while British Columbia pays $8. The MacDonalds acknowledged they "did very well" financially in Alberta, but say they are also doing "just fine" in New Brunswick now. Wages are typically lower in the Maritimes, but the companies trying to lure workers home are selling something else entirely.
"Dollar for dollar, we're not always going to compete, but on quality of life, I think we compete very well," Mr. Scott said.
So far it seems to be working. Moosehead Breweries, which can't fill the dozen or so midlevel management jobs it currently has open, received 150 résumés in the week after a recruitment drive just in the Maritimes. Moosehead will head out west soon.
Mr. Manning predicted that in 10 years, Saint John could rival Halifax as a culturally and economically vibrant city.
"We haven't seen anything like this in Saint John since the frigate program," he said. "Saint John is in for even a greater economic ride than the heydays of ship building."
COST OF LIVING INDICATORS
Calgary Edmonton Saint John Fredericton
HOUSING Average price (Sept. 2006) $369,928 $278,732 $128,451 $128,451
GASOLINE Avg. price/litre (Oct. 31, 2006) 80.8 cents 77 cents 87.9 cents 88.3 cents
COFFEE Large cup, Tim Hortons (pretax) $1.51 $1.51 $1.29 $1.29
New Brunswick Premier Shawn Graham has committed $26.6 million toward cleaning up the polluted Saint John harbour, leaving the federal government as the only partner in the project not contributing its share of the total cost.
Graham and his 18-member cabinet were sworn in on Tuesday and had five promises to keep in their first 24 hours in office, including a pledge to make a binding agreement with Saint John on harbour cleanup. The money will be parcelled out during the next seven years.
Harbour cleanup advocate Tim Vickers chats with Premier Shawn Graham in Saint John on Wednesday.
The new premier presented Saint John Mayor Norm MacFarlane with a memorandum of understanding committing the province's share of funding to clean up the harbour at a sold-out breakfast meeting at the city's trade and convention centre.
Graham's announcement won a standing ovation from the crowd of business and civic leaders and environmentalists, who have argued for years for provincial funding to clean up the raw sewage in the harbour.
"An accelerated time frame demonstrates our desire to move this project forward immediately," Graham said.
The city pumps millions of litres of raw sewage into the harbour every day. The price tag for cleanup is approximately $80 million, and the city has already promised to pay one-third of the cost. The federal government has agreed to commit just $3 million to the project.
Tim Vickers of the Atlantic Coastal Action program said this commitment from the province puts the pressure on the federal government to come up with the rest of the money.
"Clearly we have the province coming forward and saying, 'Look, we're stepping up to the plate, we're making the first move,' and that opens the door for the federal government to come forward and know that the province is serious about this."
MacFarlane said the city can't proceed on the project until Ottawa signs on for the rest of the money.
The new premier appointed five cabinet ministers from the Saint John region, including Supply and Services Minister Roly MacIntyre, who said he will lobby the federal government to contribute its share of the funding.
"I will work to promote this project with my federal counterparts at every opportunity," he said.
The Liberals also made good on their other four "Day 1" promises.
A pledge to reduce the provincial gas tax happened overnight Tuesday. At midnight, the New Brunswick Public Utilities Board set the new price of regular self-serve gasoline at 86.07 cents a litre, down from the previous price of 90.4 cents a litre. Certain approved retailers can add as much as three cents a litre to cover the cost of distribution.
"This reduction makes New Brunswick's provincial [gas] tax the lowest east of Alberta, a distinction I am committed to maintaining over the course of our mandate," Graham said.
Graham kept his promise to split agriculture and fisheries into two departments.
Graham also said the decision's been made on delivering $2,000 grants for first-year university students, but the details still have to be worked out on how the money will be distributed.
Cabinet also approved a change in the way seniors have to pay for nursing home care, though Graham said it may take a few days for the change to take effect.